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Dark-themed UI colours have been popular for a while on certain desktop applications (Adobe Lightroom as an example), and seem to be popping up on mobile applications as well. I'm referring to the overall "look", from button-colours to background-colours.

Stephen Few recently posted about this issue on his blog: "Black or White: What Color Works Best for the Background of a Screen?". In one of the comments, someone mentioned the following:

So the problem here is that there are a number of factors that come into play at any given time that determine what the best course of action is. There is no absolute right and wrong…and where I work we maintain a light and dark version of our interfaces to enable us to use either. But it is interesting that black is often chosen by users in user testing in our world where visual data analysis is being done (charts, graphs, ticking data streams, status lights, etc.) because they find it much easier to see at a glance what is changing and in what direction. However, they almost always want a white interface for reading content.

This got me thinking. Has anyone ever had users ask for a change to dark/light (opposite of the original) background colour in response to you user-testing your application? And in general, how often do users ask for this change? This can apply to either desktop or mobile applications. Naturally, answers that reflect your own user-testing research will be preferred.

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2 Answers 2

Following the answer and comments by @JohnGB, I spent some time looking for examples of this "almost religious" backlash to changing UI theme colours, and sensitivity to contrast in general. The most recent high-profile example I could find was Visual Studio 11. There are numerous news articles tracking the story, but I'll quote some bits for posterity.

First, the initial beta release reaction:

As part of the recent Visual Studio 11 Beta announcement, Microsoft released details and images of the newly redesigned user interface that will be a part of VS11. Presenting a new interface based on a gray-scale palette that also incorporates a redesign of the familiar toolbar icons used in previous versions of Visual Studio, the new look has quickly generated intense controversy. [Feb 2012 source]

Following the initial feedback, another release in May 2012:

Microsoft is breaking out the paints and giving the next Visual Studio a dash of colour after its drab John Major-inspired beta was branded hideous, monstrous and depressing by thousands of coders.

The company said it has "increased the 'energy' level of the Visual Studio 11 themes" in the Visual Studio Release Candidate following "a lot of actionable feedback" on the beta.

That's corporate speak for saying more than 4,000 coders gave its Visual Studio beta interface a big, fat thumbs-down for going grey in April.

Or, as one dev put it: "Going from 2010 to VS 11 Beta, it just hurts my eyes. Everything looks the same and I have to spend more mental effort organising where things were on the screen.

Votes were counted on Microsoft's UserVoice poll in April: a month later the tally stands at more than 7,000. Colour was the single biggest change request.

In response, director of user experience for Microsoft Developer Tools Division, Monty Hammontree, says the company has now lightened and brightened the UI "experience" with bolder theme accents and lighter background colours. [May 2012 source]

Then, after final release in August 2012:

What do we get? The revamp retains something of the Metro look, and you can choose between Light or Dark themes. Microsoft has kept the changes it added following criticism of the preview, with a few splashes of colour, but the changes are subtle and the IDE still looks grey and washed out.

Microsoft’s goal was to enable developers to focus more on their code, but there were few complaints about distracting colours in earlier versions, whereas the new IDE does tend to make all the icons look the same. It also seems odd that Microsoft puts so much energy into IDE design rather than, for example, implementing more of C++11 in Visual C++.

That said, the icon designs are something you soon forget about when working. [August 2012 source]

Microsoft also released a Colour Theme Editor that allows for more customization on the UI colour front.

Lastly, as to the comment on contrast in general, I stumbled across this site http://contrastrebellion.com/ that also seems very passionate about reducing lots of shades of grey in design, specifically when it comes to rendering content. They provide a selection of links to readability studies, among others, to support their cause.

I found it all very interesting to read, and will look out for more examples going forward.

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My experience has been that people have strong feelings about dark themes, in that they either love or hate them.

Light coloured themes on the other hand people are a lot less passionate about. They neither love nor hate them. This makes light themes the "safe" choice.

With modern technology it is fairly simple to offer both a light and a dark theme, which is what I would recommend.


Something to keep in mind is the contrast difference between elements more than the absolute colour of the background. White on black is hard on the eyes, but light grey on dark grey is less so. Overall whatever you choose, you have to make sure that the colours used work well together.

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This post does not cite any references or sources. Please help improve this post by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.

    
In your experience, how did people communicate their negative feelings ("hate") about the UI colour? Did it drastically reduce their task completion time to the point where they asked for a change of UI colour? Or was it more of a first impression comment ("oh, it's dark, I don't like dark UI's")? –  CJ Franken Dec 22 '12 at 17:33
    
Often colors (including black) pack emotional association for users, which is why I've seen users react to colorful / bold-colored UIs more so than 'light' and 'white' UIs. While white also has meaning, but users just see it everywhere and are often used it it. –  Garen Checkley Dec 22 '12 at 17:51
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@CJFranken Most often it showed as something that appeared almost religious in nature. I never made much sense to me, but I took it to be that they felt that changing what they are used to was somehow insulting. –  JohnGB Dec 23 '12 at 4:17
    
But a post with no support cited garners seven up votes (as of now) showing people found it helpful. Sometimes it happens. –  Kris Dec 24 '12 at 13:23

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